If you’re like me, you’re staring down the prospect of three months of below-freezing weather, commutes in the dark as the sun has fled this godless land, and only the faintest whiff of DA play streamed on YouTube to sate your all-consuming hunger to get a glimpse of the class of FCD’s youth pipeline.
Yes, it’s the offseason and we’re all very sad. My therapist asked that I, as a coping mechanism, critique the play of teenagers who are probably better at soccer than I ever could have been, so here we are. North Texas SC just finished one of the most dominant seasons by any team in the history of FC Dallas as a club. As we know, however, the stated purpose of this team is to be a stepping stone to the first team for those players with the quality to make it. NTSC thrived on the field, but what role can its players take for FCD next season?
Setting a baseline
What do I mean when I say a player may get a move up to the first team?
We live in an thrilling new era in FC Dallas’ history where dominating the DA, college, or YNTs is no longer enough to earn a first team contract. NTSC is the closest thing FCD has to FCD. As such, it will be an inevitable step in the process of a player reaching the first team (outside of extreme circumstances).
The only sample we have of this new process is Ricardo Pepi. Thus, he’s our benchmark. What did he have that qualified him to make the jump?
Ability: Pepi was the best player in the league in the early parts of the season by a distance. Seven goals in his first six games, and if you really want to be cool you’ll say his best points in those games were his tireless, oft-unrewarded, defense-scrambling runs and his velvety soft touch with his back to goal. Based on Pepi, we’re going to say future players signed to FCD from the second team must have shown USL1 Best XI level quality and production over a sustained timeframe.
Opportunity: When Pepi was signed, Zdenek Ondrasek was still apparently playing with 10lb ankle-weights, Cristian Colman was injured, Jesus Ferreira was the starting striker (and we’ve since learned that Luchi Gonzalez wanted to move him back into midfield), and Dominque Badji was…Badji. FC Dallas had a hole the size of a Buc-ee’s in the ST depth chart. Even with high-level play, NTSC players who aspire to make the jump need line-of-sight to the 18 for the first team. Note this means a forecast of which NTSC players will get an FCD contract requires a view on the FCD roster. For the purposes of this article, I will assume Edwin Gyasi leaves the club after his loan ends, and Pablo Aranguiz’s loan is made permanent. Otherwise, we assume no changes to FCD’s roster. To add some zest, for those players that have shown the quality cited above but don’t have an opening with FCD for now, I will include a reasonable offseason personnel move FC Dallas could make that would open an opportunity for them. I will review all players contracted to NTXSC, and otherwise all non-FCD players that got at least 90 minutes with NTSC in 2019.
So, who’s getting a move up to MLS?
Arturo Rodriguez (best or primary position is AM/W, 20 years old): At this point, this is the worst kept secret in FCD’s organization. Eric Quill has stated three-to-four times that A-Rod is “MLS quality”, “in talks with the first team”, etc. Unless FCD cheaps out, Arturo will be playing for the first team in 2020.
Has he played at a USL1 Best XI level? He’s the clear leader for the USL1 MVP. He led the league in assists by three, in chances created (or key passes, or shot assists) by 25, was third in the league in fouls won and tied for eighth in the league in goals with eight. Down the stretch, Rodriguez was always the most dangerous player on the most dangerous team in the league. And boy howdy does he add value on defense as well: second in the league in tackles (one behind Lansing’s Xavier Gomez), first in tackles won, first in total duels, first in duels won. He was constantly stifling nascent opposition attacks.
Does he have line-of-sight to the field for the first team? Have you seen FCD’s play from the left wing this year? I’m willing to say he’s better in that position than Badji, but not better than Santiago Mosquera (maybe as good). Plus, although I think his best spot is on the wing, he has also played the #8 and #10 at a high level in USL1. Versatility gets you onto the bench.
Ronaldo Damus (ST, 20): He was the most devastating striker in USL1 by a distance – one goal every ~97min, ~24min better than the next most efficient player in the league to play more than one game (TFC II’s Jordan Perruzza). That stat actually cheapens how productive he was, since he played the first third of the season on the wing as Pepi’s standby and got pushed to second fiddle in games where Pepi came down for minutes or Colman needed a rehab assignment. In the 12 games where Damus either (1) appeared as an out-and-out winger, or (2) shared the field with Colman or Pepi, he had five goals. In his 10 games as a lone striker, he had 11 goals.
He still has room to grow in possession and maturing his arsenal of runs, but I have him as the third choice at ST for FC Dallas behind Kobra and Pepi. Because both of those players are liable to get international call-ups in the coming season and MLS plays during international breaks, Damus could see the field in 2020. Note again that he wasn’t great in his time as a winger – if it comes down to the two of them, I wouldn’t expect to see him on the bench ahead of Badji, who can fill in at either position.
Others receiving votes
Richard Danso (W, 19): My pick for the most likely NTSC player to defend Arturo Rodriguez’ presumptive MVP title in 2020. Danso was acquired on loan from a club in his native Ghana in July, and he immediately won minutes and improved to the point that he was the best player on the field in NTSC’s first four games in the month of September. Shockingly quick, the U17 World Cup veteran shows a high-level knowledge of spacing engulf slower players on both offense and defense. If Dallas buys his rights (which they should) and he can get back to that form in the early parts of next season, he’ll be moved up a level by Labor Day.
FCD move to keep an eye on: FCD moves on from Badji.
Kevin Bonilla (RB, 18): One of FCD’s army of youth internationals, Bonilla plays with his volume dial turned up to 11. Leaping into tackles, always hungry for 1v1s, bursting into the box, pressing CBs, he seems like he would be no fun to play against. In three or four games this season, he’s done that thing John Nelson does where you look back at the game and realize the other team couldn’t get any traction down his side. In other games, teams have attacked him with success.
FC Dallas has two options ahead of him at RB in Reggie Cannon and Bryan Reynolds, but both may get international break call-ups. Even if Ryan Hollingshead covers the RB spot, you still need a backup RB in case of injury.
FCD move to keep an eye on: Reggie Cannon gets sold.
David Rodriguez (AM, 17): Was Arturo Rodriguez the best playmaker in USL1’s first season? Yes.
Was Arturo Rodriguez the best playmaker on a per-minute basis on his own team? Eeeehhhhhhh…
David is a special player. He only played the full 90min in three of his 13 starts, but if he can get fit enough for full games next season, I hope Eric Quill gives him the keys. Watch his play off the bench in the August 10 game against Tucson if cocaine isn’t a strong enough drug for you.
FCD move to keep an eye on: FCD sells Thomas Roberts to Bayern Munich.
Show me more
Brecc Evans (RCB, 20): I have a hard time naming what Brecc Evans does better than Callum Montgomery at this point. Montgomery is a better threat in the air, covers more ground on defense, and by the end of the season when NTSC was able to play long out of the back, they did so primarily off of the left foot of Montgomery. Hard to picture FC Dallas signing a fifth string CB. Of course, Evans is two-plus years younger than Montgomery, and CBs tend to mature later than other outfield players.
FCD move to keep an eye on: Reto Ziegler retires.
Alfusainey Jatta (DM, 20): A fan favorite, the big Gambian was named NTSC co-captain early in the season despite being on loan to the club. He can cover every blade of grass, has more passes in his bag than pretty much anyone else in the club, and is confident enough to dribble out of even the most suffocating press. Next season, I’d want to see his technique catch up somewhat with his bravado. Also, perhaps because he’s 80% knees and shins, he looks awkward tackling for a defensive midfielder, and the results are predictably messy: a higher rate of yellow cards per tackle than all other NTSC players with at least 20 tackles.
FCD move to keep an eye on: Hard to see anything here that’s at all likely. Maybe a significant injury to Bryan Acosta?
Carlos Avilez (GK, 20): Avilez is a good goalkeeper. Probably top tier in USL1. But Kyle Zobeck’s performance in the USL1 final shows that Avilez is probably waiting for one of Zobeck or Maurer to leave the club before he makes the jump.
FCD move to keep an eye on: Nashville SC trades for Jimmy Maurer.
Jonathan Gomez (LB, 16): Plays like Arturo Rodriguez if he was left-footed and Eric Quill had moved him to LB before the season started. Showed the ability to cause danger with his passing and ball-carrying through the lines, and is an ace crosser. Like Bonilla above, he’s streaky on defense and got caught upfield a few times per game. Honestly, he’s probably a similar quality of player as Bonilla, but the two players ahead on the LB depth chart (Hollingshead and Nelson) aren’t getting international call-ups any time soon.
FCD move to keep an eye on: There’s a chance that, if Cannon is sold, FCD chooses to call up Gomez instead of / as well as Bonilla and move Hollingshead to RB.
Imanol Almaguer (DM/AM, 19): Only Arturo Rodriguez and Brecc Evans played more minutes for NTXSC in 2019. The little utility man can play both wings, LB, RB, and DM, but to my eye his best role by far is as a box-to-box midfielder. He’s tidy in small spaces, tackles hard, can be dangerous carrying the ball through the midfield, and is a plus shooting from distance. That said, he doesn’t add much to the attack outside of those shots, can get pulled out of position, and is small enough to be push around by bigger players.
FCD move to keep an eye on: Inter Miami trades for Jacori Hayes and/or Brandon Servania suffers some injury. Even then, I don’t know that FCD would sign Almaguer over other options like the next player.
Need to find more minutes
Tanner Tessmann (CM, 18): I will admit I am biased when I talk about Tanner Tessmann. He’s the 99th %ile version of the version of me that gave my whole life to soccer. He’s got a frame like an F-150, he’s two-footed, a world class ball-striker, has unreal stamina, is neat under pressure, he sees passes others don’t. When I watch him, I see Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos.
But can Toni Kroos fit into how FC Dallas wants to play? Is Tessmann quick / fast enough? The next version of Tessmann will be the one that can be a ball-hunter in the middle of the park.
Dante Sealy (W, 16): An absurdly productive winger when paired against players his age, Dante Sealy has not been able to earn steady minutes for NTSC yet. In my non-professional view, he shows all the signs and symptoms of being a 16-year-old with supreme soccer talent. For every play where he does something breathtaking, another follows soon after where he does something breathtakingly childish or wasteful. The goal for 2020 should be to move that ratio from 1:1 to 2:1.
Gibran Rayo (AM/W, 18): Rayo has gotten minutes across the frontline and at the #10 for NTSC. So far in the DA season, he has played as a winger or a striker for the U19s. A technical player, Rayo has not flashed signs of being a budding pro in the appearances I have seen, but his pedigree (USYNTs, academy play, etc.) suggest a talent. Verdict to be determined.
Bicou Bissainthe (DM, 20): The Haitian international saw his minutes all but dry up in the second half of the season as Edwin Cerrillo started to see more time with NTSC. At the risk of getting called out in a post-game interview, I will say that Bissainthe just did not look up to the level of USL1 when I watched him this year. He’s young enough to improve, and I hope he does.
Cristian Escribano (RB, 17): On the very edge of our minutes criteria, Escribano played one full game in the 2019 season for NTSC. So far for the FCD U19s, he has been maybe the second or third RB on the depth chart. He will probably have to wait for Kevin Bonilla to leave the Academy to really make his mark.
Insofar as NTSC exists to develop first team players, the club likely prefers younger players that are getting minutes. Within that construct, the only type of player NTSC wants to avoid is older players that aren’t getting minutes, in which case you can’t bet on the player developing into a starter. The below four players fit those criteria. I will list a few players emerging in the Academy that I imagine FC Dallas would like to earn these player’s spots next season.
Oscar Romero (ST/W, 23): Beni Redzic, Michael Sosa, Malik Henry-Scott, Andres Dicun, and Diego Maynez are all producing as attackers for the FC Dallas U19s. Collin Smith is the captain and, by a distance, the best-attacking player for the U17s.
Cesar Murillo (CB, 23) and Hector Montalvo (D, 21): Nathan Toledo, Camilo Estrada, and Nico Carrera have been trading the starting CB spots for the U19s. Carrera, of course, is in Brazil with the US U17s at the world cup, and I see him as the second-highest ceiling player in FC Dallas’ system behind Ricardo Pepi. Toledo has been a staple in his age group in the academy, and I really liked Estrada as a central midfielder before he moved to CB for this season. Also, Justin Che, a former winger playing CB for the FCD U17s, is well regarded by the USYNT setup.
Eduardo Cortes (GK, 26): Zach Schawl and Seth Wilson both made the bench for NTSC at times last season before the club signed Cortes, and are competing to be the #1 for the U19s so far this season.
Pour one out
Johan Gomez (ST, 18): Now with FC Porto in Portugal, Gomez is a reminder that, even with NTSC representing a new way for FCD’s high-end prospects to get pro minutes, some will still leave the nest early hoping to spread their wings and soar on gilded plumage. Good luck to you, sweet prince!
Michel Garbini Pereira (CM, 38): Technically counts!